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“The story of Frederick Douglass’ hopes and aspirations and longing desire for freedom has been told—you all know it. It was a story made possible by the unswerving loyalty of Anna Murray.”
So began Rosetta Douglass Sprague, daughter of Anna and Frederick Douglass, in a speech delivered in 1900 that later became the book My Mother As I Recall Her. It remains one of the few works that focuses on Anna Murray Douglass, in contrast to the hundreds that have been written on Frederick Douglass and his legacy. That neglect is in part due to the paucity of materials available on Anna; she was largely illiterate and left behind few physical traces of her life, whereas Frederick wrote thousands of letters and multiple books. But without Anna, Frederick may never have achieved such fame for his abolitionism—or even escaped slavery.
Frederick and Anna met in 1838, when he still went by the surname Bailey and she by Murray. The daughter of enslaved parents in rural Maryland around 1813, Anna was the first of her siblings to be born free after her parents were manumitted. She lived with her parents until the age of 17, at which point she headed for Baltimore and found work as a domestic helper. Over the years she managed to earn and save money; the vibrant community of more than 17,000 free blacks in the Maryland city organized black churches and schools despite repressive laws restricting their freedoms. When she met Frederick—historians disagree on the when and where their acquaintance occurred, but it may have been in attending the same church—she was financially prepared to start a life with him. But first, he needed freedom.
By borrowing a freedman’s protection certificate from a friend and wearing the disguise of a sailor sewn by Anna, Frederick made his way to New York City by train (possibly spending Anna’s money to buy the ticket, says historian Leigh Fought). Once there, he sent for Anna and they were married in the home of abolitionist David Ruggles. According to Rosetta, Anna brought nearly everything the couple needed to begin their life together: a feather bed with pillows and linens; dishes with cutlery; and a full trunk of clothing for herself.
“It was a leap of faith on her part, but there’s not many free black men to marry, and even that could be precarious,” says Fought, the author of Women in the World of Frederick Douglass and professor of history at Le Moyne College. “If she marries Frederick and goes north, she might be working, but she’s got a husband who’s free and in the North there are schools and their children can be educated.”
The two settled into a small home in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and both continued working menial tasks or housekeeping until Anna began having children. The first four were all born in New Bedford, including Rosetta, Lewis, Charles and Frederick Jr. Meanwhile, Frederick was becoming ever more involved in the abolition movement, and before long, he was traveling extensively to give speeches—including a two-year stint in England from 1845 to 1847—with Anna left alone to raise and support the family. During that time, she managed to save everything he sent back and used only her own income from mending shoes to support the family.
Having the wife act as the family financial planner was common for the period, Fought says. “Within working class households there’s going to be more egalitarian management of the money, and women kept the household books.” This was especially important for the Douglass family, since Frederick was away from home so frequently.
Upon Frederick’s return from England in 1847, he moved the family from Massachusetts to Rochester, New York, where they would play host to innumerable guests involved in the anti-slavery movement, and hide runaways on the Underground Railroad. Frederick also began publication of The North Star, an anti-slavery newspaper.
But Frederick’s increasing fame and visibility came with difficulties for Anna beyond the danger inherent with operating a stop on the Railroad and having a husband who drew the ire of slavers. In addition to the hidden guests, the Douglass home also played host to a number of Frederick’s colleagues, including two white European women. Julia Griffiths, a English woman who helped with The North Star, lived in the Douglass household for two years, occasionally commenting on the lowly nature of Anna’s work. “Poor fellow!” she wrote in one letter in reference to Frederick. “The quiet & repose he so much needs are very difficult for him to attain in his domestic circle.” Another houseguest, German Ottilie Assing, had numerous unkind things to say of Anna.
Frederick’s close affiliation with both these women only added fuel to the fire of rumormongering that followed the family. He was accused of having affairs with both, in part to discredit his work as an abolitionist and in part because of stereotypes of the day about the infidelity of African-American men. For Anna to defend herself would’ve required abandoning the privacy of their home life that was such a privilege for an African-American woman of the era.
“Frederick is very circumspect about mentioning Anna [in his writing] because he’s trying to respect her,” Fought says. “Women weren’t supposed to appear in print. You appeared in print when you got married and when you died. Something had gone wrong in your life you appeared in print at other times.” To respond publicly to rumors about her husband would send Anna down a road she didn’t want to be on, Fought explains, and chip away at her respectability.
For Rose O’Keefe, author of Frederick & Anna Douglass in Rochester, NY, Anna doesn’t get the credit she deserves. “They say she held the household together, but there was so much more to it than that,” O’Keefe says. Anna would’ve been working constantly to manage the guests, keep the house clean, tend the garden, balance the varying opinions of her husband’s colleagues without getting caught in the middle, and keeping their work on the Underground Railroad secret. “It was a tough role, a very tough role.”
And there were plenty of personal low points in her life as well. Frederick was forced to flee the country in 1859 after John Brown’s Harpers Ferry raid to avoid being arrested under the charge that he’d assisted in the attack (though he hadn’t). The couple’s youngest daughter, Annie, died in 1860 at age 10, and the family home in Rochester was burned down (likely due to arson) in 1872. The Douglasses lost over $4,000 worth of goods in the fire, as well as the only complete set of the North Star and Frederick’s later news publications.
After the fire, Anna and Frederick moved to Washington, D.C. While Frederick continued his work, Anna continued managing the home, now with occasional help from Rosetta, as well as numerous relatives and grandchildren. She died in 1882 after a series of strokes, leaving behind a legacy that few people ever thought to explore.
“People judge Anna to not be good enough for their great, darling Douglass,” Fought says. “Some of it is racially prejudiced because she’s darker skinned. They don’t believe she’s pretty enough.” But even though she left only the slightest mark on the written record of the past, Fought argues that there are still ways to understand some of what her life was like and who she was.
“[People like Anna] did leave an impression on the historical record by doing things. You have to be quiet and listen to the choice they made and understand the context and the other possible choices they had,” Fought says. “In that empathy, we understand more about their lives. Often you don’t get them, but you get the outlines of where they were, and an idea of what going through their life would’ve been like.”
For Anna, it was a life of working in the background and often being held to unfair standards. But it was also a life of freedom, and numerous children who had the advantage of an education, and who continued coming to her for advice and solace until the end of her life.
Lorraine Boissoneault is a contributing writer to SmithsonianMag.com covering history and archaeology. She has previously written for The Atlantic, Salon, Nautilus and others. She is also the author of The Last Voyageurs: Retracing La Salle’s Journey Across America. Website: http://www.lboissoneault.com/